Permission to land?
The years-long debate over the redevelopment of Wilson Yard heats up.
Though the flames that destroyed Uptown’s Wilson Yard bus barn were quelled in 1996, the debate over the redevelopment of the semivacant land bordered by Broadway, Montrose Avenue and CTA Red Line tracks south of Wilson Station has never been more fiery.
Following an appellate court ruling in July in downstate Belleville allowing citizens to sue municipalities for abuse of tax-increment-financing (TIF) districts, a determined group of Uptown residents called Fix Wilson Yard has begun hosting community meetings to raise money for a lawsuit against the city, citing abuse of the TIF plan that’s funding the Wilson Yard redevelopment. (To revive specific areas determined to be blighted, TIFs fix the amount of property taxes that the county, schools and parks get from property within the designated area for up to 23 years. All new property tax dollars generated from development in the TIF district are reinvested into further development.)
The Wilson Yard redevelopment plan currently includes, according to 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller’s office, the addition of a Target (located beside the Aldi Foods that opened last year), 25,000 square feet of retail frontage on Broadway and two multistory affordable housing structures. The developer is Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation, run by Peter Holsten, a longtime contributor to Shiller’s reelection campaigns who specializes in affordable housing. It’s this affordable-housing component that Fix Wilson Yard organizers are calling “the elephant” of the project, likening it to notorious failures of Chicago public housing.
“This type of housing model—high-rise, high-density, low-income housing—doesn’t work,” says Fix Wilson Yard spokeswoman and real estate attorney Molly Phalen during a presentation at a packed public meeting last Monday inside Uptown dog salon Soggy Paws. “Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes have been torn down, so why are we building [similar structures]? Is this really a responsible way for our government to be spending our tax dollars?” Phalen says current trends in affordable housing—single-family units on individual lots or mid-rise, mixed-income units—are more sensible.
Shiller assistant Yvonne Odell defends the plan as a responsible way to preserve the diversity of Uptown, historically one of Chicago’s most economically and racially varied neighborhoods. “There’s no way this is going to be another Cabrini-Green,” Odell says. “Since the Wilson Yard TIF was established in 2001, many units in the neighborhood that were formerly rental units have gone condo. The trend in Uptown is certainly not a lack of market-rate housing.”
The Fix Wilson Yard objections are part of a “NIMBY” or “not in my backyard” view of affordable housing, says Jamiko Rose, executive director of the Organization of the North East, a group that advocates for diverse, mixed-economic communities in North Side neighborhoods. “This group of residents invested in real estate and saw Wilson Yard as a speedy way to gentrify the neighborhood. Now it’s not happening the way they wanted, so they’re spreading false information. There are fears that people have around poverty and race, and invoking Cabrini-Green definitely plays on those fears. The fact is, this is not Chicago Housing Authority housing,” Rose says. “In this struggle to maintain the diversity of this neighborhood, [Fix Wilson Yard] is hurting the community.”
Nonetheless, at the end of last week’s Fix Wilson Yard meeting, dozens of neighborhood residents whipped out their checkbooks, boosting the group’s total funds to $25,000—significantly far from its $100,000 minimum goal. However, Phalen says she’s “100 percent” sure Fix Wilson Yard’s suit will make it to court. “The community wants to be heard, and we feel the taxpayers’ rights are being abused,” she says. “It’s go time.”